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Thursday 26 March 2020, 4.00pm

Shadow lives of surveillance: technologies of control and the management of disease and health crisis

Frederick Martineau, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

This seminar will be given remotely via Zoom, https://lshtm.zoom.us/j/906161455

This paper problematises the production, performativity and pursuit of surveillance as a central tenet of health system preparedness and crisis response. Drawing on nine months of fieldwork at different levels of the Sierra Leonean health system conducted in 2016-17, one year after the end of the Ebola epidemic, I will explore how intended and unintended aspects of surveillance play out within and between different parts of the health care system. My central argument is that surveillance techniques do not act solely to generate situational awareness, but perform multiple ‘shadow’ functions on, and for, different actors. Crucially for its intended public health role, interactions between these different functions—and the multiple meanings that surveillance data thus hold—act to distort perceptions among health workers seeking to make sense of ‘what is going on’ from afar.

First, current surveillance systems in Sierra Leone are configured in ways which can encourage both health workers and their surveyors to tactically misrepresent their actions in order to pre-emptively protect against imagined future blame. Rather than necessarily concealing harmful practices, I present cases where such distortions enabled health workers to provide patients with care that was clinically appropriate, but which might appear otherwise when considered out of context. Second, stripping quantitative surveillance data of its social context, far from rendering it more ‘actionable’ as its proponents assume, often enables inaction on the part of health care managers. Third, the seemingly technical nature of surveillance processes provides little protection against co-option by political actors who are concerned with its political rather than epidemiological meaning.

In contrast to dominant health policy narratives which cast surveillance unproblematically as a key component of health system ‘resilience’, attending to the performativity of public health surveillance reveals its potential role in producing and reproducing precarity. In governing what, who, and whose logics are legible remotely, techniques of public health sensemaking shape whose lives and concerns are recognisable—and therefore actable upon.


About Research in Progress:
“Research in Progress” is a special seminar series of presentations by PhD candidates, Post-Docs and Early Career researchers. Its aim is to share work, get feedback in a supportive environment, and build new networks that cut across universities, sub-disciplines and hierarchies.  Seminars are chaired by peers on a rotational basis and take the form of the presentation of a piece of written work followed by lots of discussion and refreshments. Seminars are free and everyone is welcome, although booking is advised. 

Early career anthropologists from all sub-disciplines are encouraged to present their work. Please contact Gemma Aellah, RAI Research Officer on gaellah@therai.org.uk for more information about the series. Please include a title, abstract of max 250 words and a suggested date. Presenters need to be Fellows or Student Fellows of the RAI, but attendance is open to all.